Mark Zuckerberg meets Pope Francis, gives him a drone

On Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan met with Pope Francis, as part of Zuckerberg’s trip of Italy, announced following the devastating earthquake that hit the country last week, killing hundreds. After discussing the importance of connecting people in the world without internet access, Zuckerberg presented the Pope with a drone – but, alas, not a working one. Instead, it was a model of Facebook’s solar-powered Aquila aircraft, designed to beam internet access to those areas of the world that are lacking connectivity.

The Aquila drone, which has a wingspan of over 113 feet – bigger than a Boeing 737 – just completed its first official test flight this summer. The drone will fly for 90 days at a time, and can blanket a 60-mile wide area with internet access.

According to a post on Zuckerberg’s Facebook page, the CEO told the Pope how much he admired his message of mercy and tenderness, as well as how he’s found new ways to communicate with people of every faith around the world. (The current Pope uses social media, having followed in Benedict’s footsteps by joining Twitter, and he signed up for an Instagram account just this March.)

In a statement released by the Vatican’s press office, the Pope and Zuckerberg discussed how technology can aid in continuing to spread the Pope’s message.

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“Together they spoke about how to use communications technology to alleviate poverty, encourage a culture of encounter, and to communicate a message of hope, especially to the most disadvantaged,” said Vatican press office director Greg Burke in a statement.

As part of the trip, Zuckerberg also met with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to discuss the earthquake, the economy, and technology’s impact on job creation, among other things. The CEO hosted a Townhall Q&A in Rome, which was live-streamed on Facebook, as well.

“I told the Prime Minister I’m especially excited with the work being done across Europe on artificial intelligence,” wrote Zuckerberg on Facebook.

“As part of the Facebook AI Research Partnership Program, we’re providing 26 state-of-the-art GPU servers to research institutions across Europe — including one to the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia here in Italy. They’ve got a great artificial intelligence and computer vision program, and this new technology will hopefully help students and the faculty do even more,” he said.

Fifteen research groups across 9 countries in Europe will receive these computers, which are similar to those at FAIR (Facebook AI Research) with 8 high-end GPU cards each. The computers are meant to help recipients in research areas like computer vision, learning systems, deep neural networks, and more.

Beyond getting face time with the Pope, it’s also interesting to see Zuckerberg taking on the role that’s usually reserved for politicians – that is, touring a country after a natural disaster. While that wasn’t the primary purpose of the visit, it’s clear that Facebook has a larger role to play in the world economy these days, and is working to get key players to buy into its plans to bring the internet to the unconnected masses.

Earlier this year, Zuckerberg went to China, where he held a rare meeting with China’s propaganda chief, Liu Yunshan, to discuss internet development in China, and how Facebook could be included. The site has been blocked in the country, which hosts 720+ million internet users, since 2009.